many Canadians—how many even among the
few who seek to keep themselves informed of
the best in new voices—realise, or even
suspect, that this Northern land of theirs has
produced a poet of whom it may be affirmed with
confidence and assurance that he is of the great
succession of English poets? Yet such—strange
and unbelievable though it may seem—is
in very truth the case, the poet being (to give
him his full name) William Bliss Carman. Canada
has full right to be proud of her poets, a small
body though they are; but not only does Mr.
Carman stand high and clear above them all—his
place (and time cannot but confirm and justify
the assertion) is among those men whose poetry
is the shining glory of that great English literature
which is our common heritage.
any should ask why, if what has been said is
so, there has been—as must be admitted—no
general recognition of the fact in the poet's
home land, I would answer that there are various
and plausible, if not good, reasons for it.
of all, the poet, as thousands more of our young
men of ambition and confidence have done, went
early to the United States, and until recently,
except for rare and brief visits to his old
home down by the sea, has never returned to
Canada—though for all that, I am able
to state, on his own authority, he is still
a Canadian citizen. Then all his books have
had their original publication in the United
States, and while a few of them have subsequently
carried the imprints of Canadian publishers,
none of these can be said ever to have made
any special effort to push their sale. Another
reason for the fact above mentioned is that
Mr. Carman has always scorned to advertise himself,
while his work has never been the subject of
the log-rolling and booming which the work of
many another poet has had—to his ultimate
loss. A further reason is that he follows a
rule of his own in preparing his books for publication.
Most poets publish a volume of their work as
soon as, through their industry and perseverance,
they have material enough on hand to make publication
desirable in their eyes. Not so with Mr. Carman,
however, his rule being not to publish until
he has done sufficient work of a certain general
character or key to make a volume. As a result,
you cannot fully know or estimate his work by
one book, or two books, or even half a dozen;
you must possess or be familiar with every one
of the score and more volumes which contain
his output of poetry before you can realise
how great and how many-sided is his genius.
is a common remark on the part of those who
respond readily to the vigorous work of Kipling,
or Masefield, even our own Service, that Bliss
Carman's poetry has no relation to or concern
with ordinary, everyday life. One would suppose
that most persons who cared for poetry at all
turned to it as a relief from or to counter
to the burdens and vexations of the daily round;
but in any event, the remark referred to seems
to me to indicate either the most casual acquaintance
with Mr. Carman's work, or a complete misunderstanding
and misapprehension of the meaning of it. I
grant that you will find little or nothing in
it all to remind you of the grim realities and
vexing social problems of this modern existence
of ours; but to say or to suggest that these
things do not exist for Mr. Carman is to say
or to suggest something which is the reverse
of true. The truth is, he is aware of them as
only one with the sensitive organism of a poet
can be; but he does not feel that he has a call
or mission to remedy them, and still less to
sing of them. He therefore leaves the immediate
problems of the day to those who choose, or
are led, to occupy themselves therewith, and
turns resolutely away to dwell upon those things
which for him possess infinitely greater importance.
are they?" one who knows Mr. Carman as,
say, a lyrist of spring or as a singer of the
delights of vagabondia probably will ask in
some wonder. Well, the things which concern
him above all, I would answer, are first, and
naturally, the beauty and wonder of this world
of ours, and next the mystery of the earthly
pilgrimage of the human soul out of eternity
and back into it again.
poems in the present volume—which, by
the way, can boast the high honor of being the
very first regular Canadian edition of his work—will
be evidence ample and conclusive to every reader,
I am sure, of the place which
Lovely world and all its lore
in the heart and soul of Bliss Carman, as well
as of the magical power with which he is able
to convey the deep and unfailing satisfaction
and delight which they possess for him. They,
however, represent his latest period (he has had
three well-defined periods), comprising selections
from three of his last published volumes: The
Rough Rider, Echoes
from Vagabondia, and April
Airs, together with a number of new poems,
and do not show, except here and there and by
hints and flashes, how great is his preoccupation
with the problem of man's existence—
Of man's eternal plight.
is manifest most in certain of his earlier books,
for in these he turns and returns to the greatest
of all the problems of man most constantly, probing,
with consummate and almost unrivalled use of the
art of expression, for the secret which surely,
he clearly feels, lies hidden somewhere, to be
discovered if one could but pierce deeply enough.
Pick up Behind
the Arras, and as you turn over page
after page you cannot but observe how incessantly
the poet's mind—like the minds of his two
great masters, Browning and Whitman—works
at this problem. In "Behind the Arras,"
the title poem; "In the Wings," "The
Crimson House," "The Lodger," "Beyond
the Gamut," "The Juggler"—,
yes, in every poem in the book—he takes
up and handles the strange thing we know as, or
call, life, turning it now this way, now that,
in an effort to find out its meaning and purpose.
He comes but little nearer success in this than
do most of the rest of men, of course; but the
magical and ever-fresh beauty of his expression,
the haunting melody of his lines, the variety
of his images and figures and the depth and range
of his thought, put his searchings and ponderings
in a class by themselves.
Lenghty quotation from Mr. Carman's books is not
permitted here, and I must guide myself accordingly,
though with reluctance, because I believe that
in a study such as this the subject should be
allowed to speak for himself as much as possible.
In "Behind the Arras" the poet describes
the passage from life to death
cadence dying down unto its source
In music's course,
goes on to speak of death as
broken rhythm of thought and man,
The sweep and span
Of memory and hope
About the orbit where they still must grope
For wider scope,
be through thousand springs restored, renewed,
With love imbrued,
With increments of will
Made strong, perceiving unattainment still
From each new skill.
Now follow some verses from "Behind the Gamut,"
to my mind the poet's greatest single achievement;
fine sand spread on a disc of silver,
At some chord which bides to motes combine,
Heeding the hidden and reverberant impulse,
Shifts and dances into curve and line,
round earth, too, haply, like a dust-mote,
Was set whirling her assigned sure way,
Round this little orb of her ecliptic
To some harmony she must obey.
what of man?
to all his half-accomplished fellows,
Through unfrontiered provinces to range—
Man is but the morning dream of nature,
Roused to some wild cadence weird and strange.
now, are some verses from "Pulvis et Umbra,"
which is to be found in Mr. Carman's first book,
Low Tide on
Grand Pré, and in which the poet
addresses a moth which a storm has blown into
man walks the world with mourning
Down to death and leaves no trace,
With the dust upon his forehead,
And the shadow on his face.
dust and fleeing shadow
As the roadside wind goes by,
And the fourscore years that vanish
In the twinkling of an eye.
dust and fleeing shadow." Where in all our
English literature will one find the life history
of man summed up more briefly and, at the same
time, more beautifully, than in that wonderful
line? Now follows a companion verse to those just
quoted, taken from "Lord of My Heart's Elation,"
which stands in the forefront of From
the Green Book of the Bards. It may be
remarked here that while the poet recurs again
and again to some favorite thought or idea, it
is never in the same words. His expression is
always new and fresh, showing how deep and true
is his inspiration. Again it is man who is pictured:
fleet and shadowy column
Of dust and mountain rain,
To walk the earth a moment
And be dissolved again.
while Mr. Carman's speculations upon life's meaning
and the mystery of the future cannot but appeal
to the thoughtful-minded, it is as an interpreter
of nature that he makes his widest appeal. Bliss
Carman, I must say here, and emphatically, is
no mere landscape-painter; he never, or scarcely
ever, paints a picture of nature for its own sake.
He goes beyond the outward aspect of things and
interprets or translates for us with less keen
senses as only a poet whose feeling for nature
is of the deepest and profoundest, who has gone
to her wholeheartedly and been taken close to
her warm bosom, can do. Is this not evident from
these verses from "The Great Return"—originally
called "The Pagan's Prayer," and for
some inscrutable reason to be found only in the
limited Collected Poems, issued in two
stately volumes in 1905 (1904)?
I have lifted up my heart to thee,
Thou hast ever hearkened and drawn near,
And bowed thy shining face close over me,
Till I could hear thee as the hill-flowers
I have cried to thee in lonely need,
Being but a child of thine bereft and wrung,
Then all the rivers in the hills gave heed;
And the great hill-winds in thy holy tongue—
ancient incommunicable speech—
The April stars and autumn sunsets know—
Soothed me and calmed with solace beyond reach
Of human ken, mysterious and low.
can read or listen to those moving lines without
feeling that Mr. Carman is in very truth a poet
of nature—nay, Nature's own poet? But how
could he be other when, in "The Breath of
the Reed" (From
the Green Book of the Bards), he makes
me thy priest, O Mother,
And prophet of they mood,
With all the forest wonder
Enraptured and imbued.
becomes such a poet, and particularly a poet whose
birth-month is April, Mr. Carman sings much of
the early spring. Again and again he takes up
his woodland pipe, and lo! Pan himself and all
his train troop joyously before us. Yet the singer's
notes for all his singing never become wearied
or strident; his airs are ever new and fresh;
his latest songs are no less spontaneous and winning
than were his first, written how many years ago,
while at the same time they have gained in beauty
and melody. What heart will not stir to the vibrant
music of his immortal "Spring Song,"
which was originally published in the first Songs
from Vagabondia, and the opening verses
of which follow?
me over, mother April,
the sap begins to stir!
When thy flowery hand delivers
All the mountain-prisoned,
And thy great heart beats and quivers
To revive the days that were,
Make me over, mother April,
When the sap begins to stir!
Take my dust and all my dreaming,
Count my heart-beats one by one,
them where the winters perish;
Then some golden noon recherish
And restore them in the sun,
Flower and scent and dust and dreaming,
With their heart-beats every one!
poem is sufficient in itself to prove that Bliss
Carman has full right and title to be called Spring's
own lyrist, though it may be remarked here that
not all his spring poems are so unfeignedly joyous.
Many of them indeed, have a touch, or more than
a touch of wistfulness, for the poet knows well
that sorrow lurks under all joy, deep and well
hidden though it may be.
Carman sings equally finely, though perhaps not
so frequently, of summer and the other seasons;
but as he has other claims upon our attention,
I shall forbear to labor the fact, particularly
as the following collection demonstrates it sufficiently.
One of those claims is as a writer of the sea
poetry. Few poets, it may be said, have pictured
the majesty and the mystery, the beauty and the
terror of the sea, better than he. His Ballads
of Lost Haven is a veritable treasure-house
for those whose spirits find kinship in wide expanses
of moving waters. One of the best known poems
in this volume is "The Gravedigger,"
which opens thus:
the shambling sea is a sexton old,
And well is his work done.
an equal grave for lord and knave,
He buries them every one.
hoy and rip, with a rolling hip,
He makes for the nearest shore;
And God, who sent him a thousand ship,
send him a thousand more;
But some he'll save for a bleaching grave,
And shoulder them in to shore—
Shoulder them in, shoulder them in,
Shoulder them in to shore.
"The City of the Sea" (Last
Songs from Vagabondia) Mr. Carman speaks
of the seabells sounding
eternal cadence of sea sorrow
For Man's lot and immemorial wrong—
The lost strains that haunt the human dwelling
the ghost of song.
he speaks of
great sea, mystic and musical.
here from another poem is a striking picture:
. . .
Seems to whimper and deplore
Mourning like a childless crone
With her sorrow left alone—
The eternal human cry
To the heedless passer-by.
have said above that Mr. Carman has had three
distinct periods, and intimated that the poems
in the following collection are of his third period.
The first period may be said to be represented
by the Low
Tide and Behind
the Arras volumes, while the second is
displayed in the three volumes of Songs from
Vagabondia, which he published in association
with ihs friend Richard Hovey. Bliss Carman was
from the first too original and individual a poet
to be directly influenced by anyone else; but
there can be no doubt that his friendship with
Hovey helped to turn him from over-preoccupation
with mysteries which, for all their greatness,
are not for man to solve, to an intenser realisation
of the beauty and loveliness of the world about
him and of the joys of human fellowship. The result
is seen in such poems as "Spring Song,"
quoted in part above, and his perhaps equally
well-known "The Joys of the Road," which
appeared in the same volume with that poem, and
a few verses from which follow:
the joys of the road are chiefly these:
A crimson touch on the hardwood trees;
vagrant's morning wide and blue,
In early fall, when the wind walks, too;
shadowy highway cool and brown,
up and enticing down
rippled waters and dappled swamp,
From purple glory to scarlet pomp;
outward eye, the quiet will,
And the striding heart from hill to hill.
of the finest of Mr. Carman's work is contained
in his elegaic or memorial poems, in which he
commemorates Keats, Shelley, William Blake, Lincoln,
Stevenson, and other men for whom he has a kindred
feeling, and also friends whom he has loved and
lost. Listen to these moving lines from "Non
Omnis Moriar," written in memory of Gleeson
White, and to be found in Songs
is a part of me that knows,
incertitude and fear,
I shall not perish when I pass
greatly having joyed and grieved,
content, shall hear the sigh
Of the strange wind across the lone
lands of taciturnity.
patience therefore I await
friend's unchanged benign regard,—
Some April when I too shall be
water from a broken shard.
"The White Gull," written for the centenary
of the birth of Shelley in 1892, and included
in By the
Aurelian Wall, he thus apostrophizes
that clear and shining spirit:
captain of the rebel host,
forth and far!
toiling troopers of the night
on the unavailing fight:
The somber field is not yet lost,
thee for star.
lips have set the hail and haste
bugle down the wintry verge
time forever, where the surge
Thunders and trembles on a waste
"A Seamark," a threnody for Robert Louis
Stevenson, which appears in the same volume, the
poet hails "R. L. S." (of whose tribe
may he may be said to be truly one) as
master of the roving kind,
all you hearts about the world
In whom the truant gypsy blood,
Under the frost of this pale time,
Sleeps like the daring sap and flood
That dreams of April and reprieve!
You whom the haunted vision drives,
Incredulous of home and ease,
Perfection's lovers all your lives!
whom the wander-spirit loves
To lead by some forgotten clue
Forever vanishing beyond
Horizon brinks forever new;
Our restless loved adventurer,
On secret orders come to him,
Has slipped his cable, cleared the reef,
melted on the white sea-rim.
lovers all your lives." Of these, it may
be said without qualification, is Bliss Carman
summary of Mr. Carman's work, however cursory,
would be worthy of the name if it omitted mention
of his ventures in the realm of Greek myth. From
the Book of Myths is made up of work
of that sort, every poem in it being full of the
beauty of phrase and melody of which Mr. Carman
alone has the secret. The finest poems in the
book, barring the opening one, "Overlord,"
are "Daphne," "The Dead Faun,"
"Hylas," and "At Phaedra's Tomb,"
but I can do no more here than name them, for
extracts would fail to reveal their full beauty.
And beauty, after all is said, is the first and
last thing with Mr. Carman. As he says himself
joy of the hand that hews for beauty
Is the dearest solace under the sun.
eternal slaves of beauty
Are masters of the world.
happy, willing slave—to beauty is the poet
himself, and the world can never repay him for
the message of beauty which he has brought it.
to From the Book
of Myths, but much more important, is
Hundred Lyrics, one of the most successful
of the numerous attempts which have been made
to recapture the poems by that high priestess
of song which remain to us only in fragments.
Mr. Carman, as Charles
G. D. Roberts points out in an introduction
to the volume, has made no attempt here at translation
or paraphrasing; his venture has been "the
most perilous and most alluring in the whole field
of poetry"—that of imaginative and,
at the same time, interpretive construction. Brief
quotation again would fail to convey an adequate
idea of the exquisiteness of the work, and all
I can do, therefore, is to urge all the lovers
of real poetry to possess themselves of Sappho:
One Hundred Lyrics, for it is literally
a storehouse of lyric beauty.
must not fail to speak of From
the Book of Valentines, which contains
some lovely things, notably "At the Great
Release." This is not only one of the finest
of all Mr. Carman's poems, but it is also one
of the finest poems of our time. It is a love
poem, and no one possessing any real feeling for
poetry can read it without experiencing that strange
thrill of the spirit which only the highest form
of poetry can communicate. "Morning and Evening,"
"In an Iris Meadow," and "A letter
from Lesbos" must also be mentioned. In the
last named poem, Sappho is represented as writing
to Gorgo, and expresses herself in these moving
the high gods in that triumphant time
Have calendared no day for thee to come
Light-hearted to this doorway as of old,
Unmoved I shall behold their pomps go by—
The painted seasons in their pageantry,
The silvery progressions of the moon,
And all their infinite ardors unsubdued,
Pass with the wind replenishing the earth
forever I must live
And, once thy lover, without joy behold,
The gradual uncounted years go by,
Sharing the bitterness of all things made.
must be now made of Songs
of the Sea Children, which can be described
only as a collection of the sweetest and tenderset
love lyrics written in our time—
earthborn children sing,
When wild-wood laughter throngs
The shy bird-throats of spring;
there's not a joy of the heart
But flies like a flag unfurled,
And the swelling buds bring back
The April of the world.
perfect and complete are these lyrics that it
would be almost sacrilege to quote any of them
unless entire. Listen, however, to these verses:
day is lost without thee,
The night has not a star.
Thy going is an empty room
Whose door is left ajar.
it is the footfall
Of twilight on the hills.
Return: and every rood of ground
Breaks into daffodils.
are those who will have it that Bliss Carman has
been away from Canada so long that he has ceased
to be, in a real sense, Canadian. Such assume
rather than know, for a very little study of his
work would show them that it is shot through and
through with the poet's feeling for the land of
his birth. Memories of his childhood and youthful
years down by the sea are still fresh in Mr. Carman's
mind, and inspire him again and again in his writing.
"A Remembrance," at the beginning of
the present collection, may be pointed to as a
striking instance of this, but proof positive
in the volume, Songs
from a Northern Garden, for it could
have been written only by a Canadian, born and
bred, one whose heart and soul thrill with the
thought of Canada. I would single out from this
volume for special mention as being "Canadian"
in the fullest sense "In a Grand Pre Garden,"
"The Keeper's Silence," "At Home
and Abroad," "Killoleet," and "Above
the Gaspereau," but have no space to quote
Mr. Carman is not only a Canadian, he is also
a Briton; and evidence of this is his Ode
on the Coronation, written on the occasion
of the crowning of King Edward VII in 1902. This
poem—the very existence of which is hardly
known among us—ought to be put in the hands
of every child and youth who speaks the English
tongue, for no other, I dare maintain—nothing
by Kipling, or Newbolt, or any of our so-called
"Imperial singers"—expresses more
truly and more movingly the deep feeling of love
and reverance which the very thought of England
evokes in every son of hers, even though it may
never have been his to see her white cliffs rise
or to tread her storied ground:
England, little mother by the sleepless Northern
bred so many nations to devotion, trust, and pride,
tenderly we turn
welling hearts that yearn
Still to love you and defend you,—let
the sons of men discern
Wherein your right and title, might and majesty,
concluding this, I greatly fear, lamentably inadequate
study, I come to the collection which follows,
and which, as intimated above, represents the
work of Mr. Carman's latest period. I must say
at once that, while I yield to no one in admiration
for Low Tide
and the other books of that period, as represented
by the Songs from Vagabondia volumes,
I have no hesitation in declaring that I regard
the poet's work of the past few years with even
higher admiration. It may not possess the force
and vigor of the work which preceded it; but anything
seemingly missing in that respect is more than
made up for me by increased beauty and clarity
of expression. The mysticism—verging, or
more than verging, at times on symbolism—which
marked his earlier poems, and which hung, as it
were, as a veil between them and the reader, has
gone, and the poet's thought or theme now lies
clearly before us as in a mirror. What—to
take a verse from the following pages at random—could
be more pellucid, more crystal clear in expression—what
indeed, could come closer to that achieving of
the impossible at which every real poet must aim—than
this from "In Gold Lacquer" (page 12)?
are the great trees overhead,
And gold the leaf-strewn grass,
As though a cloth of gold were spread
To let a seraph pass.
And where the pageant should go by,
Meadow and wood and stream,
The world is all of lacquered gold,
Expectant as a dream.
poet, happily, has fully recovered from the serious
illness which laid him low some two years ago,
and which for a time caused his friends and admirers
the gravest concern, and so we may look forward
hopefully to seeing further volumes of verse come
from the press to make certain his name and fame.
But if, for any reason, this should not be—which
the gods forfend!—Later Poems, I
dare affirm, must and will be regarded as the
fine flower and crowning achievement of the genius
and art of Bliss Carman.